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  • Elle Stübe


For eons, humans have regarded the transition into a new year as auspicious.

Four thousand years ago, Mesopotamians were the first to celebrate the new year with festivals; while Babylonians began the practice of new year’s resolutions around the same time, abandoning their bad habits in favour of better ones in a superstitious bid to appease the deities. The Romans also believed the end of the year was a significant threshold moment, naming the first month ‘January’ after the God Janus whose two faces allow him to look simultaneously forwards and backwards.

With such ancient origins and longstanding traditions, it is no surprise that as modern humans we continue to feel that the new year holds unique and potent significance for our own fates and fortunes.

Still today, much is made of where, what and with whom we spend the last night of the year. Extravagant new year’s parties, rolling countdowns, live broadcasts and mass fireworks further confirm our sense of its exceptional importance in determining our future.

As the new year kicks off, social expectations can often demand we feel energised, empowered and inspired to reach for our goals. We are encouraged to conceive of the new year as a fresh blank page, on which we just need to write our new and improved selves.

Contrary to the hopeful, exciting and inspiring time it is billed as however, research shows that many people experience the new year with heightened anxiety and depression.

Far from a joyous period brimming with potential, the new year can be a trigger for fear, shame, aloneness, hopelessness and dread - and for none more so, than people living with trauma.

By its very definition, trauma prevents a person from having control over their own lives. Despite their most strenuous efforts, best laid plans and genuine intentions, a person carrying trauma will often struggle to alter anything at all about their inner or outer experience.

Instead, they may frequently find themselves trapped in patterns of behaviour, unchecked emotional reactions, recurring bodily symptoms, repeated relational cycles and a ‘groundhog day’ existence to which they feel doomed.

While all humans hold great potential for transformation, trauma literally switches us from states that allow growth and evolution, to holding patterns that prioritise merely coping.

Trauma’s impact is most simply described as keeping us stuck in surviving and prevented from thriving.

This neurobiological reality sits in stark contrast to the popular notion that the turning of the year presents a golden opportunity to make change in our lives happen, just by deciding it.

Yet new year’s resolutions continue to be widely touted as a useful mechanism to effect change in our lives. Social media, magazines and advertising promote ideas of ‘new year – new me’ in ways that are at best magical thinking and at worst, damaging set-ups for the millions unwittingly entrapped by their unresolved past.

While setting intentions, creating a vision board, committing ideas to paper or other mindful practices can be useful in establishing clarity and direction for your life, these practices alone are unlikely to result in actual change if a person has been impacted by trauma.

Any idea that at the new year we can facilitate our own transformation, is out of step with a contemporary theoretical understanding of the conditions necessary for humans to experience meaningful change. Some of the key theoretical tenets of this understanding include:

o Trauma theory: which illuminates the inherent vulnerability of being human and the complexity inherent in freeing ourselves from unsafe past experience;

o Body psychotherapy: which reminds us that genuine change occurs not at the level of cognition, but deep in our most visceral cellular selves;

o Neuroscience: which proves that trauma holds our nervous system hostage, restructures our brain and prevents us from self-regulating in ways necessary for our evolution; and

o Relational psychoanalytic theory: which confirms that all significant change and healing in humans requires the consistent, safe, attuned, empathic relational holding of another.

A contemporary understanding of humans and trauma's devastating impact on our capacity to experience change, now makes clear the need to abandon dated messages and practices around the new year. And to embrace instead, a more nuanced and compassionate approach to supporting change in ourselves and others at this time of year and at all others. It informs us that genuine change requires engaging in a therapeutic process that is trauma informed and grounded in clinically sound realities. That gently, safely and incrementally, trauma therapy can elicit change not just at the level of cognition, but at the deepest level of human experience. That this requires a psychobiological approach, that works directly with the body/mind in integrative and restorative ways. And that then and only then can clients finally experience the kind of reliable and lasting change they yearn for - change from the inside out.

Change is the nature and birthright of all humans. But perhaps it is high time we acknowledge, that we are not all equal in our capacity to manifest it.


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